Alyssa Wedge, a volunteer from Lehigh University: I was taken aback by the contrast between the “tourist” Czech Republic and the excluded community
During the first half of July, two students from Lehigh University in the USA, Kevin Basek and Alyssa Wedge, came to the offices of o.p.s. ROMEA having decided to spend their summer doing more than getting tan, taking trips and going to one party after another, as most of their peers probably will, and instead dedicating their time off from school to working for a nonprofit organization as volunteers. The opportunity for their international volunteering is made possible by the Inclusion o.p.s. organization, which focuses on supporting the inclusion and integration of minorities in the Czech Republic in collaboration with Christine Novak, a professor of clinical psychology, the UN Information Center in Prague, and the American Center Prague.
We have taken advantage of this opportunity to ask our volunteers about their backgrounds, experiences, and the reasons they have flown halfway around the world to the Czech Republic to help in the area of Romani integration in particular.
Our first interview was with Alyssa
Where do you and your family come from?
I am from a small town in New York and have lived there my entire life. My ancestors are from Germany.
What is your field of studies and why did you choose the Lehigh University?
I study Industrial & Systems Engineering at Lehigh University, which I chose because of its highly regarded engineering program. I am currently going into my third out of four years there to earn my degree.
"The attitude of the majority that all Roma people live of the government and cheat other people could not be farther from the truth. "
Did you choose this field out of interest, or was it more of a pragmatic
decision? What are your career opportunities in the U.S. after graduation?
I chose my field of interest mainly because of career opportunities after graduation. I enjoy math and science and was encouraged by teachers to pursue a field in technology. There are also programs in the U.S. that support women going into fields that used to be predominately male.
What was your biggest “culture shock” after arrival to Czech republic?
I wasn’t so much culture shocked first arriving but after our visit to Nymburk I was taken aback by the contrast to the “tourist” Czech Republic and the excluded community.
As a foreign visitor, you can see the life in our country from a distance and aptly report about it, even though cursorily. What do you - as American - find incredible and what incomprehensible?
I don’t see life in the Czech Republic as that different than life in America. Perhaps the gap between the rich and the poor is greater and therefore it is harder for the poorer sector to have the opportunities to better their situation. Otherwise I find that the United States and Czech Republic share many of the same issues.
What preceded your way to Czech republic? Was it your voluntary interest, or compulsory obligation to pass an internship for study purposes? And why actually the Czech Republic?
Preceding my trip to the Czech Republic I read many publications about social exclusion and the Roma people. These articles and the discussions we had about them helped me to get an idea about their situation and what was being done to help them. I volunteered for the internship because I am passionate about human rights and equality. My main goal is to gain as much information as possible from reading and working with Romea to help contribute positively to their efforts for social inclusion.
"Social inclusion could be more at the forefront of Czech politics."
What experience have you gained in the Czech Republic?
Seeing the excluded community firsthand gave me the insight to the everyday life of a Roma person. The trials and tribulations they face as well as their triumphs. I realized they are making the best of their situation and truly care for their children and their futures. The attitude of the majority that all they do is live of the government and cheat other people could not be farther from the truth.
How does the theory you learnt in the university differ from the reality you experience here?
Seeing a theory and possible solutions on a paper are nothing compared to seeing them in person. We could talk about including minorities in society all day but seeing their situation firsthand is when it becomes a reality. I believe that’s why the majority of people in Europe see the Roma as a problem, when in actuality it is their mindsets and stereotyping.
You can compare your home experience with the local approach to minorities. What is your experience so far?
My experience at home to the approach of minorities is quite different. The majority of people accept those who are different than they are. It is a minority that is openly hostile and racist towards minority groups. It seems that in Europe the Roma people are used as scapegoats for a country’s economic problems. Whereas in the United States people are becoming accustomed to the idea that our differences are what make us strong.
What do you think is a mistake in Czech society’s approach to minorities? Do you think our society does something better, i.e. do you see some models of approach that American society fails to implement?
I think that social inclusion could be more at the forefront of Czech politics. It is an extremely complex issue but I think the solution starts with education. In the U.S. all students must complete a certain amount of schooling and have the opportunity to go to college through scholarships for minorities. I think the Czech government could do more to put Roma children through to secondary school and make sure they receive a quality education. A well-educated mind is going to contribute more to society than an ignorant one.
What is the most important information or realization you will take home from your stay in Czech?
The most important realization I will take home from Czech Republic is that we are all not that different. As people we all want to succeed in life and contribute something meaningful. That’s why I think organizations like Romea are so important, they help people realize that they can achieve more than they believed possible.
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